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Part of the Yiddish Book Center's Online Lecture Series
The Jewish Metropolis: Warsaw and Vilna before the Holocaust is a lecture series by Professor Samuel Kassow focusing on the history of two key cities in Ashkenazi Jewish history.
Lecture 1 – Warsaw: The Making of a Jewish Metropolis
The story of Jewish Warsaw from the mid-1800s until 1914 is a fascinating saga of the rise of a Jewish metropolis. In just a few decades, Warsaw became the largest Jewish community in Europe. It was a mosaic of Jewish tribes—Litvaks, Hasidim, and Galitsianers—and a magnet for Jewish talent and wealth. During the early 20th century, Warsaw became one of the most important centers of the Jewish press, Yiddish theater, and Jewish publishing. This lecture will tell the story of how Warsaw assumed such a commanding place in the Jewish world. We will explore the different layers of Warsaw Jewish history: the Polish-speaking elites, the Hasidim, the arrival of the Litvaks, and the rise of Warsaw as a Yiddish and Hebrew literary center before World War I.
Lecture 2 – Warsaw: The Capital of Polish Jewry
The story of Jewish Warsaw between the two World Wars shows the development of Warsaw's role as a center of Jewish politics and the Jewish press. We will learn about the famed "Tlomackie 13," a Yiddish writer's club, and visit the "Yung Teater," which ranked as one of the best avant-garde Yiddish theaters in the world. The lecture will also open up the painful and complicated issue of Polish-Jewish relations between the wars and show how Polish Jewry fought hard to protect its basic rights and human dignity.
Lecture 3 – Litvaks: The Collective Memory of Jewish Vilna
Who were the Litvaks? In the old days, in the heyday of the Yiddish theater, hardly any comedian could get through his act without poking fun at the differences between the “Litvaks” and the “Galitsianers.” Polish Jews used to say, “Today I saw a Litvak walking with two Jews.” Underneath the humor, though, there were real differences and tensions between the different Jewish “tribes” of Eastern Europe.
This lecture will explore the great regional variations within East European Jewry. Obviously history and geography played a major role. Lithuanian Jews lived among different gentiles than Polish and Galician Jews. For reasons we will discuss, the relative weakness of Hasidism also had a decisive impact on the formation of the Litvak ethos. But in the case of Vilna—one of the oldest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe—there is a collective memory that encompasses personalities as diverse as the Vilna Gaon and the Bundist martyr Hersh Lekert. This was a memory that served to create a sense of community and subsequently "nusekh Vilne," Vilna’s special atmosphere.
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